I have been tasked by my immediate superiors to design a process that transforms convicted criminals into expendable assets without compromising their effectiveness. Their desire is to minimize cost of maintenance by utilizing criminals in roles that impose inhumane working conditions in addition to removing a surplus population whenever possible through extremely hazardous environments or armed conflict. A natural obstacle is that most sane individuals would reject this form of punishment and rebel whenever possible. Inevitably, candidates must be modified to ensure their absolute compliance, but absolute control necessitates sacrificing some efficacy; I wish to avoid excessive augmentation that is cost-prohibitive relative to functionality in successful conversions.

While I have access to cybernetic, physiological, and psychological research relevant to this task, I am by no means an expert, and lack a comprehensive understanding to correctly apply these tools. What solutions are feasible given aforementioned information?

To clarify, this punishment is exclusive to convicted criminals, not a means of ensuring cooperation in the general population through intimidation.

  • $\begingroup$ 'I have been tasked by my immediate superiors' Are you one of the conscripted, or one of the voluntary recruits? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Mar 25 '19 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme Transferred from a separate government occupation; previously unaffiliated. $\endgroup$ – Syzygy Mar 25 '19 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ Like some kind of ... Suicide Squad? $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Mar 25 '19 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ The name of your boss is Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin and googling the history of the Sovjet gulag system and their use of forced labour should provide a exceedingly comprehensive guide. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Mar 25 '19 at 20:14

10 Answers 10


'to design a process that transforms convicted criminals into expendable assets without compromising their effectiveness'

Seems to me that process has already been thoroughly developed. It is directly from the training manual of the US Marines for 'conscripted' (involuntary, drafted) recruits.

Step 1: Haul them off in buses or other mass transit to a completely contained facility where contact with the outside world is impossible, and the ability to completely control every aspect of their lives is assured.

Step 2: Put them in barracks and force them to wear uniforms that strip all sense of individuality from them, leaving only a collective herd identity.

Step 3: Force them into humiliating situations including hazing, washrooms without any sense of privacy, scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush, mass showers in crowded conditions, sleeping in beds that offer no privacy, and generally continuing to strip them of any concept of individuality, self-respect, individual shame, and control over their lives. Follow this with dehumanizing, humiliating constant barrages of verbal abuse from the herd authority that their survival depends upon.

Step 3: Control their diet completely - everything they eat is closely monitored, and choice is completely minimized to eat or starve. Supplying their basic needs is completely dependent upon the herd organization, and all other needs are deemed inconsequential.

Step 4: subject them to collective, regimented, and synchronous physical exercise that absolutely exhausted them, to the point where they do not have the luxury to think. They just do what they are told, what everyone else is doing, in a synchronized autonomous obedient routine.

Step 4: Repeatedly put them in scenarios where their life is completely dependent on what others do, and instilling the sense that what the lives of their fellow conscripts depends on them following orders and conforming to the herd.

Step 5: Subject them to training exercises that promote a controlled PTSD 'perpetually dazed but not entirely broken' state in them (loud sudden bangs, near-death training scenarios, live fire bullets, sudden awakening by loud alarms and loud shouting) such that they accept that surviving is totally beyond their control, and their survival is entirely dependent on following orders like automatons.

Step 6: Continuous indoctrination that they are doing this 'for loyalty and subservience' to a greater herd cause - perhaps country and flag, and totally replace any other source of self-esteem with a simple 'loyalty to herd'.

Step 7: Once all sense of humanity, individuality, and sense of moral judgement and personal identity is stripped from them, re-program them with the belief that absolute adherence to herd authority is the only way that they can manage and cope with the stress part of PTSD. A controlled, systematic variation of the Stockholm syndrome

Step 8: Once their humanity is stripped from them; they have been reduced to automatons through fatigue, continuous physical exhaustion, and pain; they have been conditioned to absolute obedience to authority; they have replaced any sense of individual goal with loyalty and fidelity to the goal of the 'greater cause'; and they absolutely believe that they are doing all of this of their own free will for the benefit of the collective good of some overriding supreme authority, the only thing left in their psyche is the basic human 'herd animal' conform to the group instinct and response.

Step 9: Once they have been completely reduced to the fundamental herd mentality thinking that is basic and ingrained in humans through evolution, completely indoctrinate them with the ingrained belief that, if they do not conform, they are a complete failure to themselves, their fellow companions, their family, their country, to everyone that has ever mattered to them, and the only way they will NOT be an absolute total failure is to conform entirely to the herd.

Step 10: Now start to train them with the activities that you will praise them for, give them rewards for doing, build their esteem back up, give them a sense of purpose in life, give them a sense on not failing, and in general instilling in them that success in these goals is the only thing that matters to them (including activities that include using weapons of mass destruction against innocents), that will determine their status in the herd.

Result: Highly trained automatons that will do anything on command, all while shouting slogans of 'for flag and country!!!' (basic loyalty to the herd) and actually believing that what they are doing is what they WANT to be doing, what hey have CHOSEN to do.

This has always, throughout human history, been a really cheap way of producing expendable assets for military activities. It is also a very effective way of producing compliant, easily managed, but very productive slaves.

Your embellishment 'this punishment is exclusive to convicted criminals' is a non sequitur, since it has always been used throughout human history without any restrictions as to its application to 'convicted criminals'.


It's all about reducing humans back to the evolutionary ingrained herd mentality, or 'conformation to the herd' that (despite everything that humans may believe or want to believe about notions of human free will and self-determination) is basic to human genetics, and is all that is left once the upper layers of 'civilized behavior' and 'intellectual thought' have been stripped away.

  • $\begingroup$ This should be the accepted answer. $\endgroup$ – Geronimo Mar 26 '19 at 13:21

There are basically three separate ways of using people.


If you have the ability to punish and detect non-compliance that will work. Many people kind of misunderstand this to think that the severity of the punishment is the important thing but really all that matters the punishment is worse than possible benefits of non-compliance. The big question is whether people expect to get away with it.

In military terms this is establishing and maintaining discipline. Give them clear rules and enforce all of those rules at all times. Make them enforce those rules. That way they are their rules that they are committed to, not the rules somebody else imposes on them. The distinction matters because that commitment is what you care about in the field, not the rules themselves.

In practice this happens during basic training where in controlled and supervised conditions the rules and the process of enforcing them are imposed on them from the outside until they become functionally self-enforcing. This means that the men themselves and their NCOs maintain routine discipline and the officers simply act as authority figures and arbitrators.

The rules should also define what the officers can do the convicts and those rules should be enforced. "Anything goes" is acceptable option but it would still need to be clearly stated. And if there are limits, those limits must be enforced.

Your case has the special complication of the men having unusually large incentive to escape. So you'll need to take extra measures to compensate. Fortunately as the men are totally expendable the measures do not actually need to work so you can cut the expenses to minimum. You also should limit yourself to methods that have some other benefits.

Distinctive facial tattoos with ink that you "promise" can be safely removed with the correct treatment. In the short term it makes no difference if that is true but it probably saves trouble to make it so. You can hire some actor to show his clean face without any tattoos to convince them you are honest, anyway.

Then just make sure that they all "know" that the tattoo makes it trivial for them to get caught and totally spoils their chances of freedom even if they escape to the enemy. Just make up some stories that are good enough they will live as rumours and legends without you having to push them. And have the officers explain "the facts" anyway. Just in case somebody doesn't listen to rumours.

The benefit here is that it makes them all look the same and creates a shared and distinct identity to the unit. Think of it as a uniform with unit insignia on steroids.

Since this is a cybernetics setting you should also have some brain surgery and implant a "self destruct device" in their brain. They are not actually valuable enough to bother but having them think that is doubly useful. First, it makes them think that desertion or surrender is not an option which is a good mind set for expendable gun fodder to have. Second, it makes them not to wonder why you wanted to implant something in their brain which opens all kinds of sneaky exploits.

Actually making it a functional self destruct device is optional. Staging a fake demonstration is good enough for discipline. That said you probably do not want anyone to steal your implants so an anti-tamper system capable of destroying the implant might make sense. And since the implant is inside their skulls, the self destruct would then be essentially free.


Doing a good work will give some benefit. Traditionally the military has used promotions and medals. You can just copy that and totally should. Why try to invent a new way to organize your force when copying works?

Create a hierarchy of ranks that people can be demoted and promoted in. Give higher ranks more authority and responsibility. Bit more privileges and better treatment work wonders. Most humans are hard wired to respond to social hierarchies so this will work very well in normal circumstances. Even for convicts.

In fact, if you look at prisons, you'll note that if the prisoners are not part of the same social hierarchy with the guards they will form their own social hierarchies. Same with schools. This is not really what you want to happen with violent people you give weapons to, so supplying them with a strong social hierarchy defined by you that includes the non-convicts as an upper class of officers is a thing to do.

Individual good performances and behaviour should also be consistently rewarded. The way human brain works that will form a self reinforcing pattern that makes people to do more of the same. Because of this you want to make sure that everyone gets rewarded regularly. The actual reward is not that important as long as it gives positive feedback. Lack of abuse as usual actually does count. Military organizations regularly cheat on this by making basic training "needlessly" annoying so that they can reward people by simply giving them a break or a nod instead of an insult. Copy. It works and has for millennia.

In your case, you have, again, an extra handicap in that your convicts are maybe not the best soldier material ever and might simply not care about your "rewards" and respond normally. Fortunately, cheating is always an option.

Remember that brain implant I wanted earlier? Just connect that directly to the reward center in the brain and trigger it whenever a reward is given. Problem solved. Unless they have a structural issues in the brain which you would have checked for when doing the implant they will care about your silly rewards and be motivated by them.

You can also give negative rewards separate from violations of rules and discipline. Demotions, annoying extra work, loss of awards all are part of the system. And can also be boosted with the brain implant.


To operate effectively people need a framework that gives them an idea what is the right thing for them to do in the situation. You want that to be "cooperate fully and fight the best we can" not "kill all the officers and run for the enemy territory".

Basically, you want them to believe that they deserve their current situation as a result of their past actions and that this is their great opportunity to redeem themselves and start a new life. And that this is a great test given by fate or God and that they should rise to the challenge and be better people. And that the unit and the officers are there to help them and really under all the bad things are their best allies and friends as they are the ones to give them a real chance and hope.

That may sound like a hard sell and it really is when you are forcing bunch of criminals to be expendable gun fodder. But there are two things that should make it possible anyway.

First, they will really, really want to believe it. Life without any hope and faith is really hard. And since you control their life, they either believe what you tell them or give up. And survival instinct makes giving up on life hard. Suicides will obviously happen but these people are expendable so that is fine. Seeing their comrades die is something you want them to be familiar with but hate anyway. Just make the basic training long enough that the suicidal people die before they can reduce the combat effectiveness of the unit. Besides physical activity and tight community do help.

Second, still cheating. That brain implant makes giving people real religious experience just one button press away. Making them accept their only hope when in a group going through the same experience and being equally manipulated and controlled by you? Trivial.

It might make sense to give some rational hope as well. Freedom, full citizenship and clean criminal record are pretty common and do not really cost you anything. Which is why they are common. Financial rewards are also pretty common. Some sort of a pension or stipend usually. It makes them less likely to revert back to crime so it is a good investment. You do not really want people with extensive combat experience trained by you have shoot outs with the police. They'd probably win but...


The best place to start in terms of your research is how it was done in the past; the British Navy in particular (during the age of sail) commonly pressed criminals and merchant sailors into service on board military vessels. Ultimately many convicted criminals were given a choice between gaol or service in the navy and therefore to some degree it was voluntary; the analogue in a modern world would be to have prisons whose conditions were publicly so horrific that people would choose your job offers instead of jail (as we spell it in modern times). In that sense, their effectiveness is generated by motivation - perform or you go somewhere even worse.

Discipline on Naval ships at the time was very tough and probably reflected the fact that many didn't want to be there, especially in their early days after being pressed. Often other sailors would take newly pressed sailors under their wing and literally 'show them the ropes' so as to get them under control, being productive, and therefore avoid the worst that naval discipline had to offer.

It should be stated at this point that pressing was primarily aimed at merchant sailors because they already brought some skill to their roles. The criminals were offered positions that were considered unskilled, but no doubt had the opportunity to develop more knowledge of seafaring as a result of their term of service.

In your case, the way to keep your criminals effective is twofold; training and motivation. You train them to do the job that you want them to do because ultimately there's no point bringing them in only to have them die in the first 5 mins because of a stupid mistake. But, once you've trained them, you have an investment in them that means that their lives in their new roles have a value, meaning that you want them to be relatively more comfortable than they would be in a jail. In other words, their motivation is not wanting to revert to a worse form of punishment. Add to that hope; the ability to get out of the system after an agreed term of service, and the motivational cycle is complete. You have both a carrot and a stick.

The British Navy of the day wouldn't have actually taken these people on if they couldn't be made productive; there's no point having people on board a ship that consume food and other resources if they don't contribute to the human labour intensive functions of the ship. If it worked for them, it's possible to make it work for yourself using the same carrot and stick functions that extra grog rations and flogging (respectively) served in the Navy. If you can get people to understand that this really is their best option, you won't have to worry about their motivation, they'll bring it on the journey with them.

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    $\begingroup$ The floggings will continue until the morale improves. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Mar 25 '19 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ I have actually done tangential research, mostly concerning the formation of piracy and how the British navy's strict policies coupled with poor conditions inevitably led many sailors - volunteers and criminals alike - to jump ship at the first opportunity. My goal is to explicitly prevent anyone from abandoning their post by depriving them of the option to leave entirely. $\endgroup$ – Syzygy Mar 25 '19 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ “Run, buggery, and the lash” as it was immortalized. $\endgroup$ – John Hascall Mar 25 '19 at 12:30

One effective way (so much so it’s practically a trope) is the “Unremovable remote control explode-y collar of death”.

Simply: give your workforce a choice between potentially survivable awful labour or 100% guaranteed death. If you need to, throw in the carrot of ‘if You survive X years/rounds/tours then you get freedom/better quarters/nuptial visitation rights’. That way you have the stick (explode-y death) and the carrot (good things if you survive).

Some variant on this trope often appears in the ‘criminals forced into deadly gameshows’ genre of film.


I note that the Russian army in WWII had a lot of penal battalions.

The French colonial army in North Africa had many colorful units. Including a penal battalion, which was sarcastically nicknamed "les joyeaux" because the criminals were such a joy to command.

Possibly a study of how such units functioned might inspire a fictional penal unit.


Faith is your friend

I'm a fan of the approach taken by the Imperium in 40k (although it isn't exactly a model of realism in many respects).

Instil within your menial workers and expendable troops a religious fervour, such that salvation is only achievable through either a glorious death in battle, or a 'lifetime' of service in hazardous environments. If you have access to sophisticated enough cybernetic enhancements (say, electro-magnetic stimulators pointing at specific bits of the brain) you won't even need to take the 'ground-up' approach to it that is typical in real life. It shouldn't be too difficult to manufacture a sensation of divine reverence in the presence of a suitable priestly figure. Do that enough times and you could probably convert enough people to make it a viable enterprise.

If you're doubting the realism of this approach, the history of religions in general is so littered with people sacrificing themselves for what they believe in to make it pretty much ubiquitous. Although I'm sure it helps, you don't even need religion driving it as plenty of political movements demonstrate (communist revolutions, human rights movements).

There's no doubt about the power of strong belief to drive people to forsake their basic survival instincts, and people have been causing it in others the old-fashioned way for thousands of years. All you need to do is speed it up a bit.


By using comissars, like the soviets did. The convicts must choose between a certain death on the hands of the comissar now and a small chance of survival doing the task. Most will choose take the risk and do the tasks.


Human AI (Servitors)

Well there's always the Servitor approach the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40k seems to be rather fond off. It essentially lobotomizes a subject, combine that with some cybernetics and you can create some kind of human AI's.

Revolt is basically impossible and subjects can be reprogrammed for whatever task you need them. Combat, construction...

Now granted from what I know of Servitors they do take away some of the usefullness as they seem to require constant supervision. However on the other hand the criminals will be almost 100% compliant, despite needing supervsion they are also not bad at their jobs. A soldier servitor is fully capable of murdering an opponent, but might need somebody else to tell him the best possible way to do so. A maintenance servitor is good at repairing stuff, but might need somebody teling him what to repair and in what order,...

They will gladly march to their death, do hazardous tasks,... If you connect them and their superiors to a sort of network then you can also increase the efficiency, because everybody can basically 'know' what the others are doing and can thus react accordingly to it much quicker than if you had to phone somebody for example.

If you're wondering why they don't simply use actual AI's in Warhammer. It's because the Adeptus Mechanicus are very fearful of AI's. They use the Servitor as a sort of middle ground where the computer is still sort of kept in check by a human.


Since one of the options is deliberate armed conflict, you stage an escape in two nearby prisons.

The prisoners are cooped up and do essentially slave labour. This causes tensions and eventually the prisoners riot. You also keep a low amount of guards around and make sure the prisoners know this. You tell them "in the event of a riot, the current guards arent enough due to budget cuts. They'll either hold out until reinforcements arrive that arm themselves in the prison, or they'll escape and call in a military branch to deal with them. These guys know no mercy and will kill just about everyone". Throw in some lines about how only prisoners who managed to get through a passage to some open fields survived previous riots and you are set.

The key here is that you have two prisons close to each other. Once one prison starts to get too rowdy you stage a riot in both prisons, the guards immediately leave and oh deary me the locks on the armory are faulty and now all those prisoners are armed and in distinct combat gear, different gear for each prison.

To the prisoners it looks like the exit requires them to go in one direction, which will herd them into the direction of the other prison. With all the warnings and stories of survival if you manage to reach open fields they'll try to get there... And end up fighting the other prisoners, thinking that they are the army come to stop them.


A possible method could be, if the criminals can be mind-uploaded (i.e a digital copy/upload is created), then their psychology could be modified. Also, if the technology is available, possibly "attaching" nanites to the neurons needed to inspire feelings of loyalty.


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